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Interview: Eli "Paperboy" Reed

In 2002, when Eli Reed's post-high school plans to work at a radio station fell through, he did what any normal Jewish kid from Brookline would do: he moved to the blues-steeped town of Clarksdale, Mississippi. There, he hit the juke joints every night to hone his singing chops. Jamming with local icons like Terry “Big T” Williams, he was thrust into a dynamic musical environment that forced him to step up his game.

“Those guys didn't care about the color of my skin,” Reed says. “They only cared whether or not I could play.”

Nine years, hundreds of gigs, and one curious nickname later, it has become apparent that “Paperboy” Reed can play indeed. In August, he released his major label debut, Come And Get It!, a lively, pitch-perfect homage to his favorite '60s soul legends. Produced in Somerville by A-lister Mike Elizondo (Eminem, Pink), Reed's third album alternates between cooled-out ballads and full-tilt barn-burners, finely tuning the artist's throwback sound while also capturing the sweaty intensity of his live show.

Fronting his fiery seven-piece band the True Loves, Reed channels Otis Redding and Sam Cooke like few blue-eyed belters before him, from the lustful yelps of the title track to the soothing tones of “Time Will Tell.” The vibe of Come And Get It! is reverent yet modern, a balance that has garnered Reed a diverse audience of people young and old, white and black, hipster and hippie.
The son of a music critic, the singer's childhood listening habits were strongly informed by his father's extensive record collection. Many recent soul converts discovered the genre via hip-hop and funk, but Reed's fixation arose through the blues.

“I was an angsty teenager, and wasn't interested in dancing so much as crying,” he deadpans.

There haven't been too many things to weep about lately. Reed’s group has performed all over Europe and Asia and at festivals like South by Southwest and CMJ. In October Reed played at the second annual Brooklyn Soul Festival, which he co-founded, and also swung some gigs with Guster. On Friday his tour stops by the Middle East—a far cry from his days playing Allston basement shows and busking in Harvard Square. After years cutting his teeth in the dive-bar circuit, it's officially time for his victory lap.